To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in suffering.
— Freidrich Nietzsche
German philosopher Nietzsche believed that to find order in this world one needs truth and to find this one has to inquire.
I don’t know this for a fact but Bruce Cockburn, to me, is someone who has carried his sackcloth and ashes for most of his life as he has sought out misery to atone for his unwished-for, birth-given Christian guilt.
He’s a funny fellow that way, in an unfunny sort of way.
His quest for redemption has often made him a solitary man in a world occupied by fabulists, crooks, conniving psychopaths and obdurate fools.
He has seen more death, mutilation, poverty, desolation and acts of barbarism than a nightmare of Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola movies strung together, and lyrically captured his internal disquiet with an eloquence that Ernest Hemmingway would be proud to have laid claim to.
He is an artist in every sense of the word and, oddly, found himself in a world that is by halves nihilist and gung-ho god-fearing semantic.
He lives in a world impossibly strung betwixt Jesus and Albert Camus; suspended amidst ten adherent commandments and a world pinched by absurdity.
Cockburn’s name tends to conjure up a journalistic reflexology of descriptive placebos intended to connect his Christian bedevilment with a pop continuum that is largely irrelevant to the singer-songwriter’s intellectual muse.
Hanged and made publicly irrelevant in an era of decadent pop, music has become both the cornucopia and the malaise of conspicuously-branded consumerist egotists, digitized whiners, droning romantics and a salon of underwear artists.
It is the 21stcentury-world in turmoil that has the twaddle-headed mascara and rouge-dusted role models standing for nothing more than inflated pay cheques, allegiances to click-bait news and an arrogance of self-worth in a bland blandishment of news cycles.
I have the sense that Cockburn couldn’t give a toss about commercial endeavour, so long as it pays an executive wage; a factor that must be a continual source of fatigue or bemusement to Bernie Finkelstein, his manager for almost 40 years.
The first is a quiet man with a compulsive desire to atone for what he has never done, and driven to find self-worth; the second, a loquacious hustler whose manipulative skills are only narrowly trumped by his exhaustive energy to stand by his man.
Finkelstein is Bruce Cockburn’s Jed Hughes; his Scooter Braun in a faded folk-rock continuum.
Between them, they have created the Cockburn brand that is both elusive and illuminative in a world wind-swept by a pluralism of alabaster greys.
If I were Bob Lefsetz, I would fornicate over just how brilliant Cockburn is. About how the stench of this and that counts for shit, like a rabbit with too much lettuce in its intestines. And I would start name-dropping a Godzilla of surnames; and, perhaps, even conjure up a playlist of Spotify songs to red-herring my point.
I would Sonos’ificate just how good he sounds; about the time whomever and I were on the mountain; about that album I bought at Sam Goody’s, and the tickets I got for free to see Bruce at the Hollywood Bowl—were Cockburn to be playing at this outdoor stadium.
But I can’t.
Bob is Bob, and he’s for or against, and there is nothing in between.
He’s one of those Red and Blue state guys: for or against; never in between and never finding harmony.
There are no losers in Bob’s game. Just winners and they always include Bob.
Just Bob, and he’s always fucking right—even when he’s so damned wrong or, more infuriatingly, riding the rails and crossing the lines. How many tickets does it take to buy Bob’s allegiance?
But that’s his shtick. He’s not intellectually smart, but he’s quick and constant and forever in your face, and he’s a fan, and if he bellows it’s because someone’s bellowed at him and he’s mirroring what people smarter than he have said.
Bob’s a constant: like the weather, flatulence, and death.
Sometimes he’s distant; often he’s like a bout of diarrhoea that just never seems to stop.
But he’s articulate and grammatically correct, and in America this is stronger than 'fucking terrific'.
He likes Journey and Foreigner too (retch!!!!)
He’s also got a girlfriend who’s richer than rich, but he always fails to mention this—and one wonders just what else he declines to say.
But back to Bruce Cockburn.
The enduring legacy of BC will be his guitar playing.
Not his songs.
Because it is simpler to explain this way.
His songs are histrionics about abject times in eras we either wish to forget or about times we have long forgotten.
His artistry as a guitar player is easy to dote on.
References to John Renbourn and others are easy to reach. And they don’t have to reach too far because his fans don’t have to ask ‘who is this Renbourn guy?’
As for his songwriting, why is it that he has never been acknowledged for what they are?
Why haven’t university professors creamed their jeans to recognize his genius; diplomats acknowledged his worth; refugees sung his praise?
Pete Townshend has worked his catalogue like a pole-dancer in the Arab Emirates.
Bob Dylan has had his incompressible lyrics lionized to the point where it's hard to shake him from the pantheon of Shakespeare, Shelley, Byron and Blake.
Van Morrison, who has pissed everyone off, except himself, is deified.
And Lightfoot, who hasn’t written a song worth shite in decades, continues to be celebrated long after she has forgotten his name.
Bruce Cockburn is misrepresented for a generation times four, and his legacy undermined by a factor of four.
We’ve all missed the point of just what he is, and what his strengths are, by a country mile.
Today it is time to redefine Bruce Cockburn’s contribution to life, humanity, pop music and humanism.
Today it is time to balance the books and redefine an artist who has been cuckolded by his moralism and be generous enough to acknowledge our indebtedness in sharing his humanity and exceptional musicality.
Today is a time to admit that Pete Townshend’s Tommy was and is pop operatic about much less than what Bruce Cockburn has created. His song-cycle is a portfolio that is enduringly relevant and stands up against the best of the greatest.
His enduring strength is what we have failed to acknowledge.
Eddie Kramer knew how to balance Jimi Hendrix, the guitarist and the singer-songwriter.
George Martin understood the (dis)harmony between Lennon and McCartney.
Eric Clapton intuitively knew how to balance his guitar with his voice.
Johnny Winter never understood the balance between his instrument and his voice, but he was so extraordinary it didn’t matter.
Bruce Cockburn, the singer-songwriter, and exceptional instrumentalist, has rarely been captured by a producer with an intuitive understanding of arrangement.
His day will come.
Between then and now BC has a new album out on True North this Friday. It’s called Bone on Bone, and it brushes on his mastery.
It is an album with lyrical brilliance, sodden with reality, chorused with harmonies and genuinely blasted with emotion.
It is a song-cycle that fails to have the brilliance of pop pop-ups that are infused into releases by Justin Bieber and a plethora of brands hogging the charts. Cockburn again fails to pass the litmus test of engaging on-demand streaming must-repeats.
Similar to an artisan attending a Tony Robbins’ convention, he has a mind of his own. When everyone is done cheering; when everyone has gone home; when everyone has done pretending— there is only one place to go, and that is inside of one’s self.
This is the space Bruce Cockburn inhabits.
It is a long-suffering, often inconspicuous place to be—but at the end of the road there is only one person to reason with!
Bruce Cockburn confronts this uncomfortable place; but uncomfortable as it may be it is the rock-solid mirror that says ‘hey, Slick, when one is done being someone else there’s always the real life if you wanna be.’